Reviewed by Greg Godels
November 11, 2021
Karl Marx wrote about the short-lived Paris Commune of 1871: “Workingmen’s Paris, with its Commune, will be forever celebrated as the glorious harbinger of a new society.”
This year, 2021, marks the 150th anniversary of that singular event. For far too many in our moment, the Commune remains only a harbinger and not a reality. The setbacks to Marx’s vision at the end of the last century continue to cast a gloomy cloud over the prospects for the new society.
Nonetheless, the inspiration of the Paris Commune, the daring example of working people taking power, the sacrifices and martyrdom of the most committed of the Parisian workers is one of those timeless stories that will again and again awaken the minds of working people to the possible.
Now we have that account retold in the impressive new novel by Geoffrey Fox, a US fiction writer, essayist, and union activist.
Rabble! A Story of the Paris Commune (Matador, 2021) is a twenty-first century screenplay waiting for a worthy producer and director. Fox recounts the events leading to the declaration of the Commune on March 18, 1871 through the bloody week ending the Commune two months later.
We see the events unfold through the actions of real Communards like Élisabeth Dmitrieff, Nathalie Lemel, Eugène Varlin, Jules Vallès, Louise Michel as well as through the eyes of credible fictional figures that carry the narrative forward. Fox principally employs the constructs of a young bookbinder, Étienne, in awe of Varlin, who he once saw speak, and his co-worker and partner, Rose. Various other fictional workers populate the account that Fox offers, adding dimensions and texture.
A thoughtful police commissaire, an aspiring singer, and an opportunistic journalist provide a political counterpoint to the awakening workers.
While Fox is clearly a partisan of the Commune, he neither patronizes nor romanticizes the story, highlighting both the heroics and the tragedy.
Most impressive is Fox’s command of details, creating a remarkably accurate picture of life in Paris in the 1870s: the process of bookbinding, the patois, the dress, the geography, etc.
While the Commune’s politics were varied, Fox underscores the vital role of both the Blanquistes– the followers of the left Communist, Auguste Blanqui– and the Internationalists– the followers of the International Workingmen’s Association (1st International). Both political tendencies advocated for a tight organizational approach and aggressive military action, though they were in the minority in the Commune’s leadership.
Rabble! captures a growing sense of the possible with the workers of Paris, without understating the uncertainty, fear, vacillation, and indifference of many. Revolution is not a choreographed romantic adventure, but an audacious leap into untrodden terrain, foretelling equally liberation or tragic failure.
In the case of the Commune, it was a tragedy, but a tragedy that continues to inspire many to cast off cynicism and defeatism, to seek even a small role today– a perhaps, one day, forgotten role– in la lutte finale.
Fox’s novel closes with the bloody week– la semaine sanglante— in which the overthrow of the Commune is capped by the ruthlessness of the victors, the retribution of France’s rich and powerful through the agency of its traitorous military.
One can dream that an imaginative, daring film producer would assign a sympathetic director– of the integrity of Leigh, Sayles, or Loach– to turn Rabble! into a wonderful movie. Given the cesspool that passes as the film industry today, that will likely remain only a dream.
In the meantime, a worthy option is encountering Geoffrey Fox’s intelligent novel, Rabble!